The largest city in the world, so they say … more than 20 million people and possibly the worst air pollution! Would the pilot see the airport for smog, I wondered?
For this reason, I had ambivalent feelings about flying to Mexico City. Better go by bus.
I was loath to leave the sun and surf of Acapulco, the premier Mexican Pacific beach resort. To visit “el DF” as the locals call it (el Distrito Federal), was a daunting thought.
I took a luxury bus ride to the capital. The highway climbs through rocky, barren mountains studded with cacti. Isolated corn fields and children riding donkeys broke the monotony.
Mexico City sprawls across the altiplano at 2240 meters altitude and is ringed by mountains. Automobile exhausts and industrial pollution can create a great smog, especially when the phenomenon of thermal inversion occurs. This happens when the warm Pacific air flows over the Valley of Mexico and traps the cooler polluted air at ground level which rapidly becomes even more polluted.
Air pollution levels are continually monitored. At a specific high level there is a mandatory reduction in certain industrial activity and use of automobiles is discouraged. People are advised to stay indoors and if venturing on the streets, to wear a “mascarilla”, or face mask. One occasion during my December visit visibility was down to 4 kms briefly, otherwise things were OK. This means there are no twinkling stars at night time.
I arrived at Terminal Sur full of apprehension. But slowly this evaporated! I found the taxis well organized. I went to a kiosk and explained where I want to go, paid a standard fee, got my ticket and fronted up to the taxi rank.
“Lléveme al zócalo, por favor.” I wanted to go to the central plaza. My Lonely Planet Guide mentioned several economical backpackers close to the zocalo.
The Zócalo is one of the world’s biggest plazas measuring 240 meters square. A monster size Mexican flag flies in the center. The entire northern side is taken up with the Metropolitan Cathedral, perceptibly leaning this way and that, and on the east side is the National Palace and entrance underground to the metro station.
The metro is fantastic! For only a few pesos you can go anywhere all day with transfers on nine lines. The trains are rubber-wheeled, long, crowded, fast and zoom by every 30 seconds or so. The 135 metro stations are modern, often with shopping malls. Amazingly, the metro actually goes to the airport and all four major bus terminals!
Taxis are plentiful and inexpensive, especially the VW beetles. The net result is that Mexico City, although huge, is easy to get around in.
The natural starting point to explore Mexico City is the Zócalo. Formerly this was the center of the lakeside Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, which was a thriving metropolis with a population estimated at 200,000 when discovered and later destroyed by Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés, in 1520 AD. He rebuilt the city as the Spanish capital of the New World.
Much of the paving stone in the Zócalo is derived from destroyed Aztec buildings. The foundations of the Great Pyramid are preserved in the block adjacent to the Cathedral. On site is the superb Museo del Templo Mayor which records the development of human habitation here.
Next door is the National Palace, now home of the Mexican President, the Federal Treasury and National Archives. It was built by Cortés on the site of the palace of Emperor Montezuma II. The main attraction for tourists today is the display of dramatic murals by Diego Rivera, that adorn the walls of the balconies overlooking the central courtyard.
The guardians of Federal authority are conspicuous around the Zócalo making it one of the safest places in Mexico for the tourist to roam. The policemen are polite and helpful.
On a busy street corner I got a tap on the shoulder by a gun-wielding cop. “No photographs, please,” and he explained, “in Mexico you are not allowed to photograph banks.”
Actually, I was trying to photograph a shoeshine stall across the road with my telephoto lens, not realizing there was a bank with guards carrying automatic weapons in the background!
Further west about a kilometer is the central park of the Alameda. This old part of the city along Cinco de Mayo and Madero has a fascinating range of shops and restaurants housed in 16 to17 th century buildings. At Donceles 80 is a bevy of second-hand book shops. Shops selling silverware and wedding paraphernalia seemed predominant. There are a host of museums and galleries to visit.
The modern buildings, including museums, bus and metro stations and skyscrapers, are magnificently designed, impressive for size and practicality, yet they do not seem intrusive amongst the colonial treasures. The main boulevard of Mexico City is the Paseo de Reforma which runs SW from the Alameda park down to Chapultepec Park. The glass skyscraper housing the Stock Exchange is impressive.
The major banks and top hotels are found in the Zona Rosa, located about 2 km from the Alameda, in the few blocks south of the Reforma at the point of El Angel, the gilded angel Statue of Liberty. This is an upmarket area of fancy restaurants and night-spots.
After absorbing all the central city attractions there were two “must-do” items on the agenda. Firstly, a visit to the National Museum of Anthropology, secondly the ancient city of Teotihuacán, with its famous Pyramids of the Sun and Moon.
This huge museum is the work of famous Mexican architect Pedro Ramirez Vasquez and was built in the 1960’s. Each room is devoted to some aspect of pre-colonial Mexican life. The Teotihuacán Room has models of this ancient city which you can visit in real life.
It lies 50 kms NE of the city center. There are two ways of getting there. Either you go on an organised bus tour or make your own way by metro and bus, and stay all day for only a few dollars. I did the latter, but then splashed out on organised tours to the Sunday bullfight and the silver city of Taxco.
Teotihuacán is awe-inspiring. The Pyramid of the Sun was built about 150 AD and was followed by other temples and palaces, and the Pyramid of the Moon, covering an area of 20 sq. kms in a broad sun-scorched valley. At its peak in 500 AD it was the sixth largest city in the world, but by the 7th century this civilization fizzled out and the city was abandoned. An extended drought and lack of water is now thought to be the cause. Today it swarms with tourists, like columns of ants climbing to the stony summits where high priests used obsidian knives to carve out the hearts of their sacrificial victims.
Being located in Central Mexico one tends to stop over in the city at least twice on each visit to Mexico. So far now I have done so about a dozen times and always find something new to see.
Recently I have had much pleasure slowly reading the classic travel book “Life in Mexico”, first published in 1843, written by Frances Calderon (Mme Frances Calderon de la Barca, Wife of the Spanish Ambassador to Mexico). This travel book of 542 pages provides a detail account of life in Mexico City during the two years (1838-39) of her stay as a diplomat’s wife. Travel was by stage coach and horseback to the neighboring towns of Chatpultepec, Cuernavaca, Puebla and Veracruz. Find out what life was like before the automobile and television was invented! Many modern reprints of this book are available.
Mexico City is on my list of favorite cities of the world! It is a place you can return to many times to be inspired, to enjoy new experiences, and relish past ones. Viva México!